Sometimes Microsoft gets a good idea and then doesn’t follow through on it. This is the case with SharePoint and support for education. There’s a long history here and Microsoft appeared to drop a major opportunity. But SharePoint 2013 and Office 365 may just change that.

Virtual Learning Environments

Or VLEs, as they are known, are virtual classrooms that enable students and teachers to communicate. There are class schedules, assignments, reading material, email, instant messaging, even online quizzes and tests. Some VLEs also offer videos and other online training options.

It’s rare that you go into a school today and don’t find at least one classroom using a VLE, and it’s an option that many students and parents like. However, there is often a lack of standards within a single school on the VLE platform used.

While school administrators put pressure on teachers to meet state technology standards, often via VLEs, they do not require a particular VLE to be used. As a result many teachers, even in the same school, use different platforms and it can be very confusing to both the student and parent to keep track of which VLE is used for which class.

The need for a uniform professional VLE is schools is critical for the success of both the student and the VLE. SharePoint could be that standard VLE. Did you know that a large number of education institutions in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States use SharePoint as their VLE? For them it is a richer, more cost effective platform that can support not only VLE requirements, but also business processes and more. It’s the perfect market for a platform like SharePoint. But it hasn’t been easy. As many schools know, Microsoft didn’t fully understand the market in the beginning.

A History of SharePoint for Education

Long ago, in SharePoint 2003, there was the Class Server Project -- a VLE. Class Server was a tool that you could use as a teacher to do an assignment or quiz to send to a class of students, who would then do the work and send it back. A leading expert, Dave Coleman, who owns a consultancy in the UK that specializes in the Education market and is a SharePoint MVP, told me that Class Server was excellent. Unfortunately, Microsoft dropped it when SharePoint 2007 came out.

At that point, Microsoft shifted the Class Server project over to Codeplex and renamed it the SharePoint Learning Kit. It’s not a project that Coleman uses for his clients and it has received much criticism in the education market. In the Codeplex documentation, the SharePoint Learning Kit is a Windows Services 3.0 solution that will also work on SharePoint 2007. It supports SCORM 1.2, SCORM 2004 and Class Server content, managed within document libraries.

In his business, Dave says he does not see many schools using it partly because it’s open source (the same issue that Moodle tends to come up against). To use it (or Moodle) you have to rely heavily on forums and the internet to resolve issues, there’s no formal support structure. Add to that a lack of resources available and it’s easy to see why it’s not a popular option for education institutions.

With the introduction of SharePoint 2010, Microsoft still chose not to offer education specific services, but it did promote it as a great platform for education. Considering the great strides Microsoft is making in the education market with its Office 365 for Education hosted solution, it seems strange that Microsoft hasn’t offered some out-of-the-box capabilities for its premise-based SharePoint. More surprising, is that few SharePoint partners offer education services.

Microsoft does tell a good story about SharePoint and education with a number of case studies and a wide array of free templates available for PowerPoint, Excel and Word, but the reality is that when using SharePoint, everything is custom built by the organization that chooses to implement it.

For some schools this high level of customization is not a big deal. After all, SharePoint is a platform which you can build on and customize for just about any requirement. But with a market as big as education, you would think Microsoft would offer something out-of-the-box, quick and easy to implement and customizable (of course).

Better Than the Competition

Keep in mind that there is an entire solution market for education in the form of VLEs, the most well-known being Blackboard, WebCT and Moodle. Coleman told me about his experience helping an education institution in the UK migrate away from Blackboard. According to Coleman, Blackboard is expensive to maintain and support and his company has been approached by many institutions looking to migrate off of it. Moodle is an open source VLE and it is used widely, but for organizations who want a supported solution, it’s not a viable option.

Remember, SharePoint isn’t a VLE, but you can use it as one. As a platform, you can build a custom VLE solution or leverage what’s available on CodePlex. But the key thing to understand here is that SharePoint can be scaled out to be more than a VLE -- something a VLE product can’t do. With SharePoint, you can tie in business processes with teaching tools.

Coleman builds custom VLE solutions for a number of schools in the UK. What’s offered is based on what the school wants, but what’s really interesting is that these custom VLEs offer not only student/teacher functionality, but also functionality for parents enabling them to see their child’s info, like lesson attendance (maybe you want to be sure your child is at school), homework, grades, reports, not just for the current year, but for past years as well.

Some of these parent features require tying into school business processes and backend systems - clearly demonstrating how SharePoint goes beyond the basic VLE.

SharePoint 2013 and Education Services

The good news: it looks like SharePoint 2013 and Office 365 for Education are going to change this need for custom built solutions. With SP2013 Microsoft has made a more conscious effort to build education specific functionality on the SharePoint platform in the form of a module or set of services. The details are still vague, specific information is hard to find, but that doesn’t negate the fact that this is good news for both Microsoft and education institutions.

It will be interesting to see how far Microsoft has gone to offer education specific services out of the box. As the public SharePoint 2013 preview continues, we should see more information from those who are already testing the upcoming functionality.

Title image courtesy of Poznyakov (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Another article on SharePoint 2013 by Steven Pogrebivsky you might enjoy is:
-- SharePoint 2013: These Are a Few of my Favorite Things